Sergio Garcia can save the Tiger-less Masters with 1st major win

Andrew Redington

It would be one thing if Sergio Garcia was a dark horse to win golf's most prestigious major, but with Tiger Woods out and Garcia playing well, the stage is set for a potentially-magical finish at Augusta National.

If Tiger Woods playing well at The Masters is golf's dream scenario, a first-time major championship win by Sergio Garcia at the 2014 event would be a worthy consolation prize.

The Spaniard is a mainstay in the "Best Player Never to Win a Major" discussion. With 26 career wins and a total of three runner-up finishes in majors, Garcia enters Augusta ranked No. 6 in the world and is in position once again to capture golf's most coveted major.

We've seen this setup before, but this time around, the planets could finally align. Before we examine why Garcia winning would be great for the game, it's worth looking at where he's been.

2014 Masters Rookies

The scissor-kick

The year was 1999, and golf was experiencing an unprecedented renaissance due to a 20-something named Tiger Woods racking up majors like no one before. He was destined for greatness, stardom and all that came with it in an increasingly informational age.

There was youthful exuberance in an old man's game, and youngsters across the United States and around the world were excited about golf. Something special was happening in a sport that needed some magic in a big way.

Then as things couldn't get more exciting, along came El Niño.

No one will ever forget Garcia's best moment at the 1999 PGA Championship, where a 19-year-old Sergio went toe-to-toe with the world's best player. The famous moment happened late in the final round of that event when the boy wonder hit a punch-fade from an impossible lie and the kid was so excited, he sprinted after the ball like a 12-year-old who just one-upped his buddy on a dare.

That flair for the dramatic and enthusiasm is what endeared golf fans to Sergio. He had arrived.

Then, just as quickly as he'd come onto the scene, the rival we all wanted for Tiger faded into major championship oblivion. After several top-10 finishes, Garcia couldn't put it all together.

Narrow misses at the 2007 British Open and 2008 PGA Championship seemed to shatter his confidence as he entered his 30s. Though he amassed several wins -- 26 professional victories to be exact -- things never panned out the way they should have for the kid with the Ben Hogan-like swing.

The symbiotic relationship between Sergio and majors

Fast forward to present day, and a more mature (though he made regrettable statements as recently as 2013) player is positioned to capture the magic of golf's most prestigious event. The timing couldn't be better for Garcia to notch his first major win this week as golf is in desperate need of a compelling story, any story, to fill part of the chasm left by Woods' absence.

Photo credit: David Cannon

Garcia's mission in the latter part of his career is about redemption. There's no better way he can validate everything he's worked for than by winning a green jacket. He's been a fixture in golf's popular culture for so long, but has failed to deliver on his own lofty expectations.

He's won a bunch, but similar to Woods, the bar for Sergio is higher than most. Winning regular professional events, though extremely difficult to do, isn't good enough to consider his career a success.

Phil Mickelson 2.0

Once upon a time, there was this left-handed maverick of a player from Southern California who was really good at golf. Not only was he winning tournaments like crazy, but he would do stupid things on the course and make everyone laugh and cry at the same time.

He won a lot (22 times before the 2004 Masters) too, just like Sergio has. Mickelson was also considered by many to be the best player never to win a major. That was, of course, before he finally shed the label with an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole in '04. Oh yeah, and he went to ASU. Coincidentally, his golf game is like a frat party in Tempe that you can't leave because you don't know what crazy thing you're going to see next.

Before 2004, every golf fan thought this:

Photo credit: Sam Greenwood

"If Phil Mickelson could just get over the hump and win at least one major, he would instantly become a legend."

Not only did that happen, but the golf gods let it take place on sacred ground at the 2004 Masters. Since then, he's not only won multiple majors, but he's also managed to be a steady rival to Tiger. Mickelson and Woods don't care for one another, and it's glorious for the game.

Similarly, Woods and Garcia have had their own run-ins and don't seem to get along at all. In fact their relationship is overtly and publicly hostile. Also good.

Golf is the type of sport that needs stars and rivalries to sustain casual fans' interest. Sergio provides both. If he can win, it'll be the next best thing for the game coming out of Georgia this season.

If Sergio can go all Phil Mickelson on us and have a brilliant second half to his career that includes multiple majors, then golf will see a more seamless transition into the post-Tiger era. The caveat is, of course, that he has to win his first one before any of that can happen.

What a story it would be for Garcia to break through at this year's event, one where the game needs a shot of adrenaline in a big way. One man in the field has the ability to provide that unlike anyone other than Tiger. Now, all he has to do is go out and play the best four rounds of his life and hope someone else doesn't catch lightning in a bottle and beat his best.

Golf needs it, and is counting on him. No pressure, Serge.

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